Year of the Plague Rat [excerpt] – Randall Leong
December 16, 2020
There is a woman sitting opposite me, her amber hair is buoyant and healthy like her creamy skin. Health is at a premium right now and she’s got it in spades. She’s placed her black leather purse on the old desk between us. My desk. Dusty walnut stained by coffee cup rings and whiskey spills and drug soot. There are razorblade grooves in the wood with faint traces of cocaine, not substantial enough to bother with, although I see a few tempting grains as copper sunlight cuts through the Venetian blinds and crawls across the desk. But not now, not while she’s here, studying me with flinty coal eyes. I find her very beautiful. As she settles into her chair, I catch a friendly view of her cleavage where the buttons of her white blouse meet and strain to hold the fabric together against ample mammaries. I didn’t get a good look at her ass yet but there’s certainly a good chance it’s worth killing for. She may or may not be working with both the Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization. I have no way of knowing if it’s true but that’s what she says. Do I have any reason not to believe her? I suppose not but you can never be too careful in my line of work.
“Why should I believe you’re working with the CDC and the WHO?”
“Why would anyone lie about that?”
“I don’t know…why do some people drink their own piss? I’m just saying that it’s not often a classy dame steps into my office with a story like yours, so I gotta be cautious. You’ve certainly got my attention but then again you’re probably used to getting attention.”
“Fair enough,” she says, ignoring my flirtation and feasting on my poor excuse for an office. “Well, I don’t have a badge to convince you. But I work for a private corporation and I’ve been hired as a liaison between the organizations to coordinate research for a vaccine. You are aware of the virus, right?”
“Of course I am. Look, Miss—”
“—Miss LaMonte. Serena LaMonte.”
“Look, Miss LaMonte—pretty name, by the way, it suits you—I think you have to be living in a cave if you haven’t heard of the virus.”
“You sure you haven’t been living in a cave?” She asks, smiling and gesturing with her eyes at my cave-like office. She’s a cheeky thing and I’d like to spread those cheeks.
“Oh, that’s good. I like that. You are, of course, familiar with my reputation then, I’m assuming?”
“Yes, I am. I mean, when you’re operating out of a hole in the wall above a laundromat it’s pretty obvious…but no offense.”
“None taken. I made peace with my infamy a long time ago.”
“It’s also why I’ve been directed to consult you. You operate in a—let’s say, very particular space with a unique vantage point.”
“I suppose I do, if by ‘particular space’ you mean seedy underbelly. Now, this investigation will require compensation. My hourly rate is fifty bucks an hour and I gotta five-hour minimum.”
“You are on hard times, aren’t you?”
“Eh, I get by.” I take a drag from my vape and crane my neck away from her as the synthetic plume billows from my lips.
“Naturally we’re prepared to compensate you for your work. The money isn’t an issue. Time is the issue. This is a virus we’re dealing with here.”
“Understood. But money’s never an issue if you got it. And I don’t.”
“Don’t worry. We’re prepared to pay your day rate plus expenses.”
“Call it six-fifty a day and we’re even.”
“Okay. Not a problem.”
“Actually, better make that seven. Just to be safe.”
“Okay, fine. Do you mind if we get to the matter at hand?”
“Sure thing, toots. I’m all ears.”
“Okay, thank you,” she says, somewhat exasperated. “We have reason to believe that a certain Wang Wei from Wuhan is hiding somewhere here in the city. We need to locate this man. It’s very possible that he’s on the run from snakehead debt collectors so it’s been difficult for us to get any sort of lead on his whereabouts. That’s where you come in. We believe your contacts and heritage will give you an advantage in locating Wang Wei.”
“Y’know I’m only half Chinese, right?” I ask as if it were relevant.
“I’ve only vaguely scanned your DNA chart so I didn’t know the exact proportion of your ethnicity but, yes, I am aware that you’re biracial. Do you believe this fact of your heritage will give you a unique advantage in looking for Wang in the Chinese immigrant communities? Especially since you’re from San Pancho?”
“I don’t know about a unique advantage but, yeah, it should help. I mean, I know that world pretty well. I grew up around the Chinese community.”
“This is precisely why we’re hiring you. Okay, I’m sending you a photo of him—Wang, that is.” She pulls out her phone and taps away at it. I watch her exquisite lips—divine pillows sent by Aphrodite, as they’re nibbled by unstained teeth. A moment later, my phone vibrates and I study the photo. Asian man with a standard-issue bowl cut, almond eyes, broad face, probably in his fifties. Nothing really distinguishing about him. Just another comrade in a sea of billions.
“Well, he’s certainly photogenic. Looks like he could be any one of my uncles. Or even my father.”
“Should be easy enough to find him then.”
“You don’t know my father…”
“We have faith in you.”
“So what’s this Wang Wei got to do with anything? Why do you need him?”
“I’m not at liberty to say. I can’t give you any information other than we think he’s crucial to developing a vaccine to the virus.”
“What’s he got? Magic blood or something?”
More chemical plumes burst against the blinds like mushroom clouds, disrupting the dust motes in the slices of light.
“Nothing so supernatural.”
“Hey, ancient Chinese secrets, right?”
“Indeed. So you’ll take the job?”
“I’ve got a few other irons in the fire right now but I can probably clear my schedule and make this a top priority if you advance me some cash. Let’s say, five grand.”
“Done…in fact, we expected you to make that request. But, again, I can’t stress enough that time is of the essence.”
She reaches for her purse and produces a billfold thick with notes.
“Alright. I’ll clear my schedule and get to work right away,” I say, watching the money greedily as it cascades in her slender hands.
“Does the strip club mind if you come and go as you please?” She asks as she counts out the stack of crisp Franklins.
“You have done your homework,” I say, impressed. “That’s just a weekend gig. Shouldn’t interfere with this case in the least.”
“We are thorough. Okay, here’s five grand. Spend it wisely.”
She pushes the stack across the desk.
“Always do.” I take the bills into my hands and idly thumb through them. “Say, why don’t I start by spending some wisely on you. Let’s go out for a drink. Where you from? DC? Definitely not San Pancho, right? Let me show you ‘round tonight.”
She smiles. Perfect crimson. She stands and I take in her figure as she slings the purse strap around her shoulder.
“Appreciate the offer but I never mix business with pleasure. A personal rule of mine. You ought to give it a try.”
She turns and I’m blessed by a view of her ass. Just as I thought, it’s worth killing for.
“Oh, c’mon. Is life worth living if you don’t mix a little business with pleasure now and again?”
“Sounds to me like you’ve done your fair share. I’ll be in town and I’ll be in touch in a few days.”
“Call anytime. Especially if you change your mind about that drink. Don’t know if you’ve heard but I’m a rich man at the moment and I’m feeling generous.”
“Not too generous I hope. Goodbye, Mr. Chan.”
She winks and walks out of my office but hopefully not out of my life, and definitely not before I sear the image of her governmentally-trained physique into my mind. Taxpayer dollars going to a worthy cause for once. I stand and through the blinds I’m watching her descend the outer staircase until she is swallowed up whole by the bustling walkways of everyday people: hustlers, junkies, whores, street-shitters, beat cops, baristas, tech wizards, thugs, bankers, hipsters, hipster activists, anarcho hipster activists called crustpunks, tourists, painted human statues, fishmongers—all who are equalized in our earthly prison beneath the firmament like rats under fogged glass. The ancient ones are tapping on the glass, giggling. The people are scurrying, scurrying, scurrying so that this great and terrible beast of a city might feel the grease in its gears and rotate its cogs and survive another day—just one more day, it asks. I daydream about the swing of her hips against the throngs of road trash, a goddess amongst subhumans, and an angel amongst lost souls, all of them unworthy of her gaze and her touch and her grace, including me. Cursory Internet research reveals nothing about the woman—no social media presence, she’s like a ghost, a governmental ghost. A spook. I wonder who she really works for…maybe Homeland Security? Maybe the DOD? Maybe the FBI? I wonder how she found me. Maybe someone at the precinct sent her my way. Maybe I hadn’t burned all my bridges after all. But maybe it doesn’t really matter because I’ve hit the jackpot of big cases and maybe I’m in love.
It’s a crisp Friday night, rosy and blood-gorged, sometime in early or perhaps the middle of February, and for the first time in forever my wallet’s got a serious weight problem. I’m gazing at the woman’s business card, conjuring the infinite magic of that face, those tits, those legs, that ass, before shoving the card into the pocket of my trench coat. I told Serena—can I call her Serena? Or is it Miss LaMonte? Let’s keep it friendly and informal lest I get that drink out of her—I told Serena I would get to work right away on the case, but Lefty’s expecting me down at the Sloppy Hippo tonight and I can’t call in sick or I may get canned for good. It’s my only steady gig at the moment and I’ll be damned if I’m gonna let it slip through my fingers. Besides, I’m already on thin ice with Lefty—missed one too many nights last month chasing substances, women, cases, who knows. And I’d hate to see the bastard work himself up and keel over. That would be absolutely tragic. But it’s easy money and it’s tits, what more could one ask for? The girls like me too. Most of them anyway. The ones I haven’t just pumped and dumped. I’m their yellow unicorn: tall, dark, and perhaps not unhandsome, especially amidst a tapestry of a billion Chinese clones—I may not be gorgeous or ingenious but this is generations and generations of pure breeding come now genetically diversified for the betterment of man to create some kind of anthropomorphized Anatolia: this is where east meets west and it is me.
I’m driving down to the club and the radio is reporting on the virus. This accursed plague has only recently made a dent in the American news media in the past month, maybe two, but I’m already getting sick of hearing about it. But I need to focus. I ought to pay attention if I’m going to work this case. I haven’t been taking it seriously—it feels so distant, abstract, alien—but deep down I know that’ll change in weeks or months when it inevitably reaches these heathen shores. What we know thus far: like most recent disease epidemics it has origins in China—Mother China who must learn to better regulate her prodigal children and their black market cesspools—originated perhaps, as the news says, in a market in the city of Wuhan—most likely the fallout of some freak eating an undercooked dog after it had been fucked by a monkey and after it had been bitten by a diseased bat. Or maybe a pangolin. Or maybe a rat—a plague rat. They don’t seem to know much yet. Asia is in disarray. Reports from the Chinese government are not to be trusted. Symptoms are said to be severe fever, chills, coughs, nasal congestion, respiratory issues, shortness of breath, body aches, fatigue, diarrhea—all that and more can be yours and with much more gravity than the average flu, so they say. A few people have died and I’m wondering if it’s cruel for thinking China could stand to depopulate just a tad. There are 1.3 billion of my distant brothers and sisters stacked on top of each other, struggling to eke out lives in a country I’ll never know. Perhaps this is nature’s way of telling us, and definitely not my words, that we’re at maximum capacity and it’s time to thin the herd.
My ancient silver Chevy Impala is hobbling into an open space in the Sloppy Hippo’s parking lot and sighs gratefully as I kill the engine. I take a moment to absorb the crackle and hiss of the cooling engine. It’s no small miracle that the car is still running. It’s filled with junk and held together by bird shit but somehow keeps going. I stay in my seat. I raise the radio volume to better hear more virus reportage while I open up my phone to study the almond eyes of Wang Wei. I’m not seeing anything there—vacant, glassy, difficult to read. I wonder why they need him—I wonder if he trafficks in heaven or hell. I pull a small bag from my pocket and use a guitar pick to dip into the bag’s powdery contents. Only a gram of blow left, better hit up Cervantes for more. He finds the best and cheapest stuff. If he doesn’t answer then I’m confident I can grab something from someone around the club. It might be shitty yayo that’s been stepped on more times than a shit-stained sidewalk but it’ll do the trick. Perhaps I’ll hunt down some Oxycodone while I’m at it. I just got paid after all and the wad is burning a hole in my pocket.
I inhale a few bumps, text Cervantes for more, stuff the diminishing bag into my pocket, and emerge from the car like Chinese Hercules. The dull electricity is coursing through my body and spinning my brain. That chemtrail drips down my throat like God’s golden sperm. I fistbump LaGarrette at the door, one of the black bouncers, and enter the club. It’s only 8:15, the place is still pretty dead but the music is pumping and Olga is taking a turn on the platform, wrapping glittery legs around the pole in dazzling pyrotechnics. A few lonely dudes, probably regulars, are huddled around the stage, paying tribute to Olga’s holy tits and sacred gash. I’m fifteen minutes late for my shift and flying through the throbbing dark but I still take pause to admire the blonde Ukrainian, her supple curves the work of Renaissance masters: a body divined from marble, weaving through shadows and pulsing blood-red lights with pure artistry. Desire rises in my loins but the thought of actually getting hard against the white makes me nervous.
My head is sparking when I rush to punch in at the time clock outside Lefty’s office. I’m feigning punctuality when I poke my head into his office to ask a question. We both know I’m late again but he must be feeling charitable and doesn’t mention it. Perhaps he’s high or perhaps he’s gotten laid.
The Sloppy Hippo is one of many midtier titty joints in the city, not terribly large but fairly classy and well-stocked with a troupe of generally beautiful dancers. It tends to be much more low key than the glitzy traps that regularly impale tourists on their wallets—this is where lonely shadow weavers come to worship Venusian figures in peace and solitude. It’s also a fully nude club, which means legally the girls can flash their plastic bubs and bald cunts but can’t serve alcohol. This helps cut down on rowdy behavior. But most people smuggle in flasks like I have. I take a quick swig in the bathroom along with a bump then I’m sailing past the main stage, taking a quick inventory of the patrons. All is well in the land of perverts and gyrating flesh. I assume my post on the floor as imperial guard, sentried betwixt concubine and eunuch, near the main entrance and the neutered bar, which serves kindergarten snacks and sodas. Tonight, more than ever, the place reeks of perfumed fish.
A few hours pass of monitoring the door, checking IDs, bouncing the occasional drunken asshole, and then I’m taking a smoke break out back. I glance at my phone, nothing yet from Cervantes. I watch steamy tobacco plumes curl into the bitter ocean air, illuminated salt white by the building’s rear security lights. They drift against the black abyss, absorbed into the rest of Broadway’s inebriated revelries, doomed like the rest of them to be forgotten and regretted by the morning hangover. The back door bangs open by one of the girls, throwing the club’s hip-hop soundtrack into my ears before she shuts it behind her. To my delight, it’s Lucia, one of the newer dancers I’ve been eyeballing.
She performs as “Rosa” because of a shitty rose tattoo on her shoulder and upon giving me a limp smile from pursed lips—a shade of purple pomegranate—she’s popping a cold cigarette between them. I wouldn’t mind being that cigarette right about now. I’ve sucked up more of the pale bag prior to my smoke break and the urge to kiss her or cajole some kind of illicit sexual transaction is burning through me. I feel my face spasm, then a rapid twitch while I molest her curves with blinky almond eyes as she lights up. She’s fresh from the stage and, though she’s wrapped in a teddy bear sherpa, the rest of her is clear to see—sweaty tan gams in a miniskirt, steaming in the winter chill. I can all but lick the supercharged pheromones in the air.
“How was your set?”
“Eh, it was alright. A few good tips. Kinda slow tonight.”
“Yeah, I’ve only had to bounce a few kids. I mean, they can do better than that.”
“Oh yeah? I hate missing the action. I’m not really feeling it tonight but I guess I still think my set was pretty hot. I’ve really been working on it and I’m getting better.”
“Oh yeah? Sorry I missed it, I also hate to miss the action. This the first place you’ve danced?”
“Yeah, I never danced until I came up here. But money was pretty tight at the time. This city is so fucking expensive.”
“You got that right. Where’d you come from?”
“San Jose. I came up to go to the city college but so much for that shit. I dropped out during the first semester. It’s so boring, y’ know? And you make so much bank dancing.”
She giggles and takes a drag.
“I hear that. I only made it through a few semesters myself.”
“How old are you?”
“No way. You look maybe twenty-five.”
“So they say. Must be the Asian side.”
“Shit, I hope I’m that lucky when I’m thirty-five.”
“I have a feeling you’ll be gorgeous forever.”
“Aw, shut up, I doubt it. I’m not even twenty-one yet and I’m already like, oh my god, I’m getting so old. I think I see a wrinkle.”
“I wouldn’t have thought you were a day over eighteen.”
“Naw, I’m twenty. But that reminds me, can you get me some tequila? I’ll pay you for it.”
“You’re not a cop, are you?” I ask, narrowing my narrow eyes.
“Haha. No, stupid. I just wanna get a little buzzed before I do any more private dances. It’s way easier giving these creeps lap dances when you’re kinda fucked up. You know what I’m talking about. C’mon.”
“Tell you what, I got a flask on me right now. Let’s dip into my car for a second and have a nip.”
“What’s in it?”
“Hmm, I dunno. I don’t like whiskey as much as tequila. But maybe.”
“C’mon. It’ll do the trick. I’ll grab you some tequila when we’re off work.”
“Mm, alright. Where’s your car?”
We extinguish our smokes and I lead her to my shitbox sitting across the parking lot. Inside, I pop open the flask and we share a few sips. She winces at the cheap pungent firewater and groans when it burns her throat. The radio is running another story about the virus, it’s all they’re talking about. While she drinks, I take a peek at my phone. Still no sign of Cervantes.
“You got any coke?” I ask her as she hands me back the flask.
“No, I have some Xannie bars though.”
“Wanna crush ‘em up and snort ‘em?”
“Um, maybe. Do you have any coke?”
“Maybe,” I reveal, against my better judgment.
“Can we do some and I’ll give you a bar?”
“Maybe. You know anyone we can get more blow from after work? I don’t have much left.”
“Uh, yeah. Definitely. I know a few people I can call.”
I’ve seen this song and dance so many times before, I’m not sure why I fall for it. I can tell this is going to turn into an all-night wild goose chase. But I’m mesmerized by those long lashes and dimples and cock-ready lips. I reach into my pocket and steal a glance at her hiking skirt, pink panties peeking impishly at me.
With the dwindling sack in hand, I scoop out a bump for her and watch it disappear up her nose. She yowls and makes snorty nasal sounds as I take my bump. The radio is describing the rapidly expanding reach of the virus as it scorches through mainland China. My countrymen are dropping like flies. The infected beget the sick beget the dead. I take another quick bump and flick the paltry contents of the bag to heft its thin weight.
“You wanna text your hook-ups now, so it’ll be quick and easy when we’re off work?” I ask her.
“Who do you know?”
“Duh, I’m not gonna say. But I mean, c’mon, I’m Mexican. I have cousins in some of the Norteño gangs. Can I have another?”
I begrudgingly dip the pick back in and scoop out most of the remaining grains. I hold it out for her and she leans in. I whiff the vanilla scent of her glossy black hair and get a good gander at her cleavage. I think of Serena LaMonte and her twin peaks. LaMonte, that mountain I can only hope to soon scale. I think of the healthy wad in my wallet, smoldering like a fresh meteorite, buried in the earth of my pocket, and I consider tossing Lucia some bills for a blowjob or whatever she’s willing to do. It’s the cocaine talking and might possibly, potentially, probably be a bad idea. I don’t know if I could even get it up right now. Yet, here she is in some aurulent splendor, a fantasy molded from adobe clay, threatening me with companionship and bad decisions.
I finish off the bag, lick the dust inside and let it fall to the floor with the rest of the trash as I take up the flask again. She’s looking out the windows, knees jittery. I hold out the flask, which she doesn’t see until the cold steel nudges her arm.
“Have you heard about this virus thing?” she asks as she takes the whiskey.
“Yeah, it’s only in China now but they say it’s only a matter of time until it spreads around the world and eventually gets here.”
“That’s fucking scary. And people are, like, dying from it, right?”
“Eh, I think so. But only really old people and people with health problems. Did you text any of your connects yet?”
“Oh yeah, I’ll do that now,” she says, pulling her phone from her purse. “But, um, what does it do to you anyway? Do you know?”
“Why would I know? ‘Cause I’m half-Chinese?”
She looks at me, unsure if I’m joking or not.
“What? Uh, no. I was just asking.”
“I’m just messing with you.”
She smiles and her face glows blue in the light of the phone.
“Anyways, I think the virus is supposed to be like the flu. Maybe a little worse. So, typical flu symptoms like fever, chills, aches, coughing, shit like that.”
“Uh-huh,” she says vacantly, distracted by the phone, no longer concerned about the virus.
“Hey, lemme have one of them bars,” I say, trying to recapture her attention and get blasted in the process.
She moistens her lips.
She reaches into her purse, remains glued to the phone. She produces a small plastic canister and removes a single bar for me. I take it and she returns to messaging and scrolling. I wash the Xanax down with some whiskey and again offer her a swig. But she shakes her head—the screen has taken total command like a tractor beam. I may have missed my opportunity to finagle a quick free blowjob. A fiscal offering may now be my only chance. I think of my pulsating wad.
“Hey, sweetheart, wanna make a quick twenty bucks?”